(Presented at the World Press Freedom Day Virtual Dialogue hosted by UNESCO, Caribbean on May 4, 2020)
Depending on where you begin the story and the definitions you apply, media capture – meaning a concentration of monolithic ownership and/or hegemonic control over content - as a feature of the Caribbean mass communication landscape can be said to have fairly durable characteristics spanning more than 300 years.
In this respect, we may choose to introduce the subject by looking at the role of independent print media - to be distinguished from official imperial communication – by noting the advent of the first indigenously-printed Caribbean newspaper the Weekly Jamaica Courant in 1718. It was a publication produced by one of the island’s first printers with a network of African slaves comprising its circulation department.
The rather belated arrival of printing presses to the Caribbean served to create in those early years a variety of newspapers and journals under the exclusive ownership and control of colonial elements, with ties to the motherland, and leading members of a largely homogenous expatriate business class.
Broadcast media followed a similar pattern, launched in the 1930s with programming provided largely from the studios of the BBC in the United Kingdom, but growing in numbers and reach through the work of the US Armed Forces Radio Service network (WVDI) based in Fort Reid, Chaguaramas, Trinidad.
Changes in the scope and nature of Caribbean broadcast media only came in any significant manner through the achievement of political independence beginning in 1962 with Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago leading the way.
Fast forward to the mid-1980s and the dismantling of state monopolies in the broadcast media and the expansion of private investments in broadcast media. There are grounds for the argument that state capture of broadcast media went into decline thereafter, as a more diverse commercial print media base had been established through both technological and socio-economic shifts.
Various manifestations of media capture as a function of the dominance and concentration of commercial influences were evident in the early evolution of private broadcast media and were also generally characteristic of a relatively less pluralistic print media environment.
The Current Reality
The onset of new players in large numbers, particularly in the broadcast media, has played a role in reducing the influence of both state and otherwise dominant commercial interests. Though, whatever the current, unfolding conditions, I do not subscribe to the view that a largely homogeneous group – expressed as either dominant ideological or commercial interests – currently exists to the extent that a capture of the mass media space by indigenous players is evident in the English-speaking Caribbean.
That said, declining economic fortunes and accompanying changes in media market structures, the subversive role of new media and global big tech on the traditional media environment, and the gradual re-entry of the state to bolster political uncertainty and instability in some jurisdictions exist as signals to be alert to the danger of historical relapse.
Latterly, in the face of undivided attention to state communication on COVID-19, the practice of independent enquiry is being marginalised by the power of information and data framed – justifiably or not - as critical to the public interest, all massing to present the biggest single-story of our lifetime.
All these factors can have the cumulative impact of promoting higher levels of self-censorship and the emergence of media taboos while imposing limitations on the ability of independent media to challenge existing commercial and political power structures.
There has been nothing, since the transformational impacts of the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of the printing press in the Caribbean and, later, the communications environment of a world at war, to match the current Caribbean media environment.
This also occurs at a time when real questions as to the disproportionate influence and power of the big tech operators such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft (GAFAM) is being critically scrutinised as an anomalous presence in the global and regional media landscape.
Today we confront a pandemic, the responses to which are serving to undermine the socio-economic status quo in ways not previously envisaged. Some sectors of our countries have already sustained considerable damage – some of it close to irreversible.
The brittle nature of regional economic stability is being challenged and with it the vulnerabilities of the private media sector. Already, advertising revenues are down by as much as 70% in some instances, and some media companies have already imposed wage cuts and reductions in production.
One study conducted by the International Federation of Journalists on the state of global journalism in the current COVID-19 era, polled 1300 frontline journalists in 77 countries and found the following:
1. Nearly every freelance journalist has lost revenue or work opportunities
2. More than half of all journalists are suffering from stress and anxiety
3. More than a quarter lack essential equipment to enable them to work safely from home, while one in four lack any protective equipment to work in the field.
4. Dozens of journalists have been arrested, faced lawsuits or been assaulted.
5. More than a third of journalists have shifted their focus to covering Covid-19 related stories.
These findings are not unrelated to today’s discussions on the potential for media capture in this part of the world. For one, the downgrading of the financial pillars of media enterprises has been found to be a function of the weakening of general economic conditions with severe contractions in advertising revenue, leading to business shrinkage and, in some instances, commercial failure.
People have spoken about the employment privilege of journalists, but to use one term that’s becoming increasingly popular, media workers very much belong to the category of the job vulnerable.
The survival game of Caribbean mass media involves adaptability to a number of phenomena as a consequence of the challenges I have described. Among them is the opportunity weak financial positions present for the imposition of both state and private information agendas.
In situations where state media remain a feature of the landscape, state media spend is more likely than not to be extensively diverted in support of such entities. In some cases, with an increased share of state advertising expenditure on the market there is the risk of employment of such resources as a tool to reward compliant editorial behaviour and to punish recalcitrance.
In several instances, the private enterprises within a narrow band of sectors that have remained relatively intact and resilient during the current depressed condition have the potential to dominate unstable financial conditions and to impose pressures on the editorial integrity of media enterprises in return for the promise of advertising revenue.
As a backdrop to all of this is the disproportionate presence of the global technology companies that function as virtual competitors for advertising dollars and audience engagement. In a sense, if media capture is to be a concern anywhere it must include consideration of anomalous relations between these major players and domestic media.
The IFJ study, for example, notes that while the GAFAM entities earn as much as $900 billion worldwide, they pay absolutely no taxes in jurisdictions such as ours. Yet, the opportunities their platforms present include various possibilities for the monetising of journalism, and creative and other content in the face of the media revolution currently underway.
We are not the only region being encouraged to pay attention to this and it is perhaps time to form strategic alliances with people, organisations and institutions that have been paying greater attention to this issue.
In the meantime, there is a role for the state sector to ensure that the future of independent media is sustained. It may well prove to be a case of enlightened self-interest in the end. In the post-pandemic era, with rebuilding processes in train, development communication budgets can be diverted to independent media as they find their footing in situations of uncertainty.